Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in southern Idaho is a harsh, bizarre landscape frozen in time. The vast fields of black, jagged lava rock, craters, and massive volcanic formations seem otherworldly and mind-bending. Part of Idaho’s unique ecosystem, Craters of the Moon National Monument captures the awesome geologic forces that were active a mere 2,000 years ago.
Besides the fact that Idaho is one of the most diverse and interesting states that I’ve experienced in a long time, in terms of scenery and ecosystems, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is one of those places that is too unique and unforgivingly beautiful to ignore. As part of a hosted 10-day road trip through Idaho, I was able to spend a night and a full day exploring this weird and wonderful place.
Roughly a 3-hour drive from Boise, The Craters of the Moon (COM) Lava Field is made up of about 60 lava flows and 25 cones created during eight eruptive lava flows over the last 2,000 years. It was high on my bucket list of things to see in this underrated state and I’m still amazed by the absolute strange, dark, and beautiful sights I saw there.
If you’re planning a trip to Idaho in 2024, which I highly recommend, then you’ve picked the perfect time to visit this national gem. Next year marks the centennial anniversary of Craters of the Moon as a national monument and the celebration will include themed programs, special events, and more stargazing than ever before.
Craters Of The Moon
On May 2, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge established Craters of the Moon for the purpose of protecting the pristine and unique lava terrain in southern Idaho. The landscape was so odd, he described the moon-like scene as “a weird and scenic landscape peculiar to itself.” This vast park of lava and volcanic land may seem barren, but it teems with a startling amount of plant and animal life.
As a hosted journalist by Visit Idaho, I had the opportunity to explore Craters of the Moon National Monument in a Wandervan camper van. We spent the day hiking among the lava fields, crawling through the lava caves, and learning about the geology of the area.
There’s a lot to explore. The entire park and preserve is the size of Rhode Island, though it was roughly only 1,000 acres at first. In 2002, Congress established the national preserve to encompass most of the Great Rift, a 50-ish-mile-long rift that includes Bureau of Land Management land and National Park Service lands.
“The mission of the National Park Service is to preserve those lava features, lava tube caves, cinder cones, spatter cones, and also something called kapookas, which are really neat,” said Sandra Gladish, director of Interpretation and Education at Craters of the Moon.
Pro Tip: Wear good shoes! The lava fields do have some paved trails, but the majority of the park is very rocky. Sunscreen, a hat, and plenty of water are also a must.
The Craters of the Moon staff and National Park Service are already planning the framework of the centennial with a focus on different values significant to the park.
“The idea is that each month is going to have a specific theme, like the night sky, geology, cultural history, wilderness, and research,” said Gladish.
Although the schedule isn’t set in stone yet, the programs are designed to highlight the park’s cultural history, explosive geology, incredibly dark night sky, the research that continues at the park, and more.
The celebrations will pull in local communities, the public Shoshone-Bannock Tribal partners, the Bureau of Land Management, the Natural History Association, the Idaho Office of Tourism, artists in residence, and more.
Festivities will start May 2024 and run through September 2024 with a “phases of the moon” theme. Some events will happen at the park while others will be held in the surrounding communities. Some events will even be offered virtually.
“We also have a long partnership with the Idaho Falls Astronomical Society and do star parties twice a year,” Gladish said. “We have selected six artists in residence, and each month, one or two of them will be helping us host special events.”
All events will be posted on the park’s website and Facebook.
Ways To Enjoy The Park
To get the full experience in this wonderland of lava, start at the Robert W. Limbert Visitor Center for park maps and information, educational exhibits, and a nice, detailed film about the park. Then, take the 7-mile Loop Road for the easiest way to see and do a lot in a short amount of time, exploring the best highlights of the park.
Drive Or Hike Along 7-Mile Loop
The drive has pull-off areas to view Inferno Cone and the Spatter Cones, but if you have roughly 2 hours to spare, take the hike to Big Craters from the Spatter Cones parking lot. Other longer hikes include the moderately challenging 1.8-mile Broken Top Loop Trail or the 2-mile Tree Molds Trail. More adventurous explorers can take a day hike along the 4-mile Wilderness Trail (8 miles round-trip), or even an overnight backpacking trip.
You can also explore a few of the caves with a free cave permit from the visitor center, but be aware that the way is not easy. The lava caves are not paved and do require sure footing, stamina, and good shoes to navigate.
Pro Tip: Although the park has 42 campsites at The Lava Flow Campground, which is accessible from May through November, all sites are available on a first come, first served basis, so you’ll need to get there early. The closest lodging outside the park is 18 miles away in the town of Arco.
Also, aside from vending machines in the visitor center, there is no food service available in the park, so you’ll need to pack your own.
Spot Wildlife In The Park
Craters of the Moon may look harsh and lifeless, but nature finds a way. The park is home to 15 species of bats, American pikas, and even moose.
“You wouldn’t think pikas could be here because they like high elevation, but they find those cracks and crevices in the lava and are able to live in this environment,” Gladish said. “In the winter, we often have moose. You would never have thought you’d see moose in the middle of a lava desert landscape, but they seem to like it.”
Chipmunks and ground squirrels, hawks and raptors, pygmy rabbits, sage grouse, and even pronghorn antelope thrive in the Craters of the Moon preserve, as do plants like antelope sagebrush, prickly pear cactus, and a riot of wildflowers.
Learn About The History Of The Moon Landing
Because of its unearthly landscape, Craters of the Moon also played a key role in the U.S. moon landings. On August 22, 1969, NASA astronauts Gene Cernan, Alan Shepard, Joe Engle, and Ed Mitchell visited Craters of the Moon National Monument in advance of the Apollo 14 mission in 1971. Because the astronauts needed hands-on experience with volcanic landforms and rocks similar to those found on the lunar surface, Craters of the Moon National Monument became sort of a training ground.
Although it’s not confirmed, the astronauts on the upcoming 2025 lunar mission may visit the park again!
See Historic Architecture
Ever heard of Mission 66 architecture? Me either, but the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve Mission 66 Historic District was listed in 2022 on the National Register of Historic Places for its preservation of iconic Mission 66 architecture in Idaho.
Up until 1956, Craters of the Moon had a severe lack of services and accessible roads, but when the Mission 66 program was adopted in 1956, it allowed the park service to build a visitor center, park road, and other amenities so more visitors could see more of this incredible place.
I honestly believe Idaho is one of the most unique and wild states in the U.S., and a stop at Craters of the Moon is well-worth the long drive and rustic amenities. With the centennial planned for 2024, it’s also the best time to visit this peculiar and mind-bending national monument.